Eons ago I had a very important meeting with the Los Angeles-based director for a very well-known movie star Governor. I had prepped for this meeting for weeks and still splendidly put my Hobbit-like foot in my even larger mouth. So what was this grave exchange that got us off to a very awkward start – why, it was about clothes.
I had inadvertently referred to a random businessman as a “suit” – a perhaps derogatory term for someone who does executive-type business. The term caught her off guard, but for me, a creative thinker, it was natural lingo.
Since that ill-fated day, we’ve got an entire executive-type show on USA called Suits and we’ve got the world’s most innovative start-up founders donning hoodies and chucks en route to very powerful positions at billion dollar companies. Even the most banal of work environments have taken on a sartorial revolution. Case in point … does anyone even wear flesh-toned nylon stockings anymore? I think not.
While I loathe fashion-obsession and couldn’t care less about someone’s #OOTD (outfit of the day), I’m not as naïve as to think dress doesn’t matter. In fact, I give my significant other regular dress advice, urging him to ditch the suit pants and tie when attending mixers and urging him to wear softer pastel hued tones (including a strategic use of pink) when addressing a female audience. I also recently advised another friend to wear her frumpiest ‘don’t care’ outfit as possible with ‘no hair and makeup’ when casually interviewing at a well-to-do hipster company.
Clearly, clothes make the man. Do clothes make the company? Let’s explore…
I recently read a Huffington Post article by Chanel Parks titled “78 Percent of Women Spend an Hour a Day on Their Appearance” reveals alarming studies in a survey spanning 2000 adults. The article highlights how “women spend 335 hours, or two weeks, on their hair and makeup per year, which equates to 55 minutes a day.” As someone who gets to work remotely, I value the benefit of my 5 (maybe 10) minute daily routine: throw on something functional clothing, regain even skin tone, and blush some life back into my cheeks. As a writer, I can (1) get away with looking quite horrible, in fact I’m taken more seriously that way, and (2) my role doesn’t require me in fussy garb. I’m fully aware of how much time I’m saving each day, time that’s otherwise better spent redirected catching up on daily readings across top blogs and publications or answering emails.
The escape from having to be a ‘suit’ as I’d earlier expressed got me to start thinking about how the modern worker is still binding him or herself in other ways.
Annie, a UK-based interior designer, wrote a pivotal and to-the-point post on her blog Insideology. In a post titled “Why Women Should Ditch Their Suits,” Annie takes us on a journey through the last 60 years of workplace dress codes for women. It’s a clever piece that observes the function of clothing as initially a means of drawing a line in the sand between male executives and female support staff (as seen in Mad Men); to a suit being a tool to achieve equality (since “to get ahead, one had to dress like and act like a man”); to the 80’s where female suits for example were exaggerated to define women in power (because “the bigger the shoulder pad, the more fiercely ambitious the woman”); all tumbling unceremoniously toward the 90’s, where career-driven competition pinnacled and women were penalized for showing any excessive sartorial character that expressed “too much of an interest in a life outside of work” (enter the era of the “corporate uniform” symbolized by “the understated elegance of a Calvin Klein or DKNY suit and a crisp white shirt”).
We seemed to have stunted our professional growth in the 90s. While hem lines may have shifted, nearly two decades later we’re still hard-pressed to peel off a corporate uniform. Men suffer even more so when it comes to dress codes. While women have experienced rotations, a Don Draper from the 50s is near cookie-cutter version of a more modern self. Even though the purpose of work, the type of work, and the roles men take on have all transformed at revolutionary turns, the suit remains a pinnacle point of non-expression. Dress codes continue to carry a heavy burden, including evoking questions of identity and even equality. As Annie points out: “perhaps until women assert and express themselves properly sartorially, we will never have true equality in the workplace.”
The issue of equality is key. How many articles have you read about innovation, creativity, leadership, and (of course) “leaning in”? Yet how many of them talk about dress codes – our outer skin, the labels we carry by the clothes we wear? Hardly any. Full pun intended, we’re completely skirting around the core issue and that’s a dress code.
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